The Solo Player: The Current State of MMO's - Pt.1

In the early 2000's the MMO Genre was largely considered to be the new frontier of gaming, the gaming worlds newly discovered America. Now just 10 years later, MMO's are old news and falling on harder times. Some of the Olden Gamers, those that were here from the start of it all are leaving the Genre. Several highly anticipated games flopped and even the Titan World of Warcraft is facing hardships. What happened? Time and the changing environment, now far less favorable to the Solo Players.
The first real MMO was probably Gemstone IV, which was released in 1989. It was a text based game called a MUD, but it played out in real time with almost no downtime for updates, effectively making it the first MMO to be publicly released. The oldest (and arguably most independent) of all MMO Gamers played this game in its prime. Since Gemstone was played in much the same manner as old school DnD board games, requiring players to actively think about their actions and their interaction with the world through their character, about every single one of its Olden Gamers could be considered as godlike in skill when compared to today's MMO Gamers. At least in mental capacity. Several other noteworthy games were released over the years improving on this concept, such as Never Winter Nights, Meridian 59 and Ulltima Online. While all of these games garnered fairly sized fan bases, they failed to launch the Gamer Communities journey into the New Frontier of MMO's. It was not until the early 2000's when the titanic MMO's Everquest and World of Warcraft were released that the New Frontier became common knowledge and Gamers everywhere flocked to the challenges.
Throughout the mid 2000's, the genre was dominated first by Everquest and then by World of Warcraft, two MMO's of absolutely titanic proportions compared to everything else that Gamers had seen prior. Over the course of this time, Gaming was going through a Renaissance of sorts. Easier access to the internet and stabler, faster connections made online gaming easier and more common even on consoles as the Xbox and PS2 came into prominence. New possibilities opened and Gaming itself changed entirely. Unlike the old MUD format, MMO's in this era were graphically enhanced and played in the 3rd person perspective. The game mechanics known as "farming" and "Dungeon Crawling" became especially prominent in this era. Anyone who was around for Vanilla WoW can recall the Olden Gamers who explored dungeons for weeks on end, relentlessly pursuing ONE SINGLE piece of epic gear in efforts to grow stronger. With both Everquest and WoW, raids became a factor in MMO's that helped shape the Genre and started the movement away from Solo Gaming entirely. The first raids were massive slug fests, requiring great organization and teamwork from all involved. The great beasts players challenged were on such a grand scale that extremely few gamers were capable of single combat with the beasts, and most were completely untouchable without a full army. This era was a taxing one not for the faint of heart, the massive worlds required players to explore the world and complete epic quests for specific rewards. There were barriers preventing those who had not proved themselves from even participating in certain events in the games and a pretty significant amount of time was required to truly reap the rewards of playing such a game. The communities of this era were populated by some of the ancient MUD players and by the new generation of MMO Gamers, many of which are still around. The Industry itself strived not to simply "please the audience" but to challenge them and see just how grand the things could make in the New Frontier would become. There were a few notable titles to be released in this time which, while not even holding a candle to either of the Two Titans, helped promote the MMO genre as a legitimate successor to the previous Gaming Era.
Thus, we come to the most recent Gaming Era. In recent times the New Frontier of MMO's faces the same issues as the Real World exploration of the Americas. While originally a New Frontier filled with opportunities, quickly the Industry populated and expanded over the Genre of the MMO. The mid to late 2000's saw an insane influx of smaller MMO's, entirely mult-iplayer games, and larger corporations making attempts to overthrow the reigning Titan World of Warcraft. Along with these was an increase of players as well, including many younger, newer and less experienced players joining the ranks of experienced MMO veterans. Now MMO's have had an interesting evolutionary process over the course of these ages: originally they were played from the solo perspective, but with other players in the same world as you creating an interesting and competitive environment for all soloists. Over time they changed, adding very team based objectives while still keeping the solo player aspect central to the game, every player had to pull his own weight in a group and forging alliances and friendships was extremely helpful, but did not make or break much beyond the godlike beasts that Raiders challenged. As time progressed, team play became more important and solo players lost much of their prominence. The newest generation of gamers grew up with enhanced social connections thanks to thanks like face book and my space, being constantly connected to networks of people has made the current generation far more dependent on this constant interaction with others. The newer generation bands together far faster and easier than the Olden Gamers, but the cost is their attention spans. Olden Gamers were driven to challenge the worlds they were in, they dungeon crawled and farmed thanks entirely to this competitive drive and had no other choice. NewGen Gamers don't have the same drive, and to adapt to them the industry provided faster, more efficient means to connect with others and play the games. Exploring the world is a foreign concept to the NewGen Gamers, wandering dungeons looking for loot is tedious while simply getting the gear is normal.
Most recently the MMO's being released have been smaller and are going the route of free to play. Some are trying new approaches to the genre itself and others are changing game mechanics. Developers struggle to understand the NewGen Gamer yet this is where the problem facing the MMO Genre comes full circle: the NewGen Gamer itself. Several noteworthy releases show this better than others, of which I will explore in my next blog issue.